November 21: Two Frenchman Make the World’s First Untethered Manned Hot Air Balloon Flight

This Day In History: November 21, 1783

In Paris, France, Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier and François Laurent d’Arlandes made the first untethered manned flight in a Montgolfier hot air balloon.  After several practice runs to get the feel for how to work the balloon, de Rozier and d’Arlandes finally made their first untethered flight leaving at 2:00 p.m. from the garden of the Château de la Muette to the Butte-aux-Cailles.  This 25 minute flight covered about 5 1/2 miles (9 km) with the balloon reaching an altitude of nearly 3,000 feet.  At the completion of the flight, there was enough fuel left to have allowed the balloon to have gone four to five times as far, but parts of the balloon itself began to catch on fire, so they chose to land early.  Upon landing, the pilots drank champagne to celebrate their successful flight, which started the tradition still commonly maintained by balloonists to this day.

The balloon used for this first free flight was a Montgolfier balloon which was created one year before by brothers Joseph-Michel Montgolfier and Jacques-Étienne Montgolfier, who owned a paper manufacturing company that still exists to this day. The idea of a balloon to carry people first came to Joseph as he watched laundry drying over a fire.  He observed that pockets of air formed in the clothing which then billowed upwards from the fire embers.   He believed that the smoke that billowed up in the fire contained a special gas that held a special property called “levity”.  While watching this, he began to think about the possibility of creating air ships that could carry soldiers into fortified enemy bases.

Joseph’s first experiment began by creating a box shaped item that was 3x3x4 feet.  It was comprised of very thin wood and coverings on the sides and was topped with a lightweight taffeta cloth.  Once constructed, he then lit some crumpled up paper under the bottom of the box.  The box quickly lifted from the ground and collided with the ceiling.   Seeing his success, he then enlisted the aid of his brother in attempting to make a balloon that could carry people through the air.

The brothers first set about building a contraption 3 times larger (27 times larger in volume) than his original box.  When they tested it out, the object lifted so quickly and with such force that they lost control of the balloon on its very first flight on December 14, 1782 with the balloon floating nearly two kilometers away before coming down.  The balloon that was eventually used in the first untethered manned flight was a 60,000 cubic foot balloon that was approximately 75 feet tall and 50 feet in diameter.  They not only made the balloon functional, but also attempted to make it something of a work of art.  The outside of the balloon featured gold figures on a blue background with various zodiac signs.   The central section of the balloon had suns overlaid with King Louis XVI’s face in the center, interlaced with royal monograms.  The balloon also had red and blue drapery with golden eagles at the base.


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